In mourning and in lockdown, believers may experience the power of Easter’s surprise: the arrival of someone who meets us in seclusion and whispers, “peace be with you”.
What word would you choose to describe Easter in 2020?
Travel plans have been cancelled. Churches remain empty while hospitals are full. Family gatherings are replaced by video chats to make sure grandma and grandpa are okay.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, much of humanity is in lockdown or under various forms of seclusion. The joy of spring’s trademark holiday has given way to fear, isolation, and mourning for those we’ve lost or are about to lose.
In Italy, where I live, Lent has featured army trucks transporting corpses and the Pope walking alone in deserted streets.
It’s a sad, exceptional Easter. But underneath its somberness lies an opportunity: to experience circumstances similar to those that gave rise to this festivity and that marked its history.
The first Jewish Passover was preceded by calamitous climate change; sicknesses in animals, then humans, upended life in Ancient Egypt. Our comfortable lockdowns don’t compare to the Hebrews’ bondage, yet we can identify with their prayers for liberation.
In prosperous times we are content with a feel-good festivity. But in a 2020 stripped of routines and rites, this holiday helps us to remember past suffering – and to process our own.
When Jews share the bread of affliction and taste the bitter herbs of suffering, “history [is] made memory by re-enactment,” according to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, transforming the pain of past generations into a resource for present times.
Similarly, Christians are perceiving eerie echoes of Jesus’ story in what is currently taking place in the world. “To see wives who can’t perform rites or bid farewell to their dying husbands reminds me of how Jesus was hastily buried and women returned to the tomb to anoint his body”, Gaetano di Francia, a pastor in Northern Italy, told me.
If Christians were tempted to glib optimism in previous years, the coronavirus pandemic forces believers to address humanity’s collective suffering.
“Our natural inclination is to rush to the resurrection, but this Easter is an opportunity to dwell on Good Friday and not jump immediately to Easter Sunday”, Sotiris Boukis, a pastor in Thessaloniki, Greece, shared with me.
Easter’s greatest consolation in 2020 may turn out to be a God acquainted with suffering. In a world of exponential infections and deaths, moments like Yahweh hearing Israelite cries and the Father grieving the death of his Son may resonate more with the present moment than the crossing of the Red Sea or the empty tomb.
For the first followers of Jesus, Passover celebrations in Jerusalem started with merry crowds but ended with a heartrending cross.
Instead of triumphing, they mourned; instead of a funeral, the disciples disbanded and locked themselves away, afraid the violence they witnessed would visit them.
What visited them, according to the gospels, was someone: Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”. The disciples were so startled that Jesus soon repeated those words – twice.
The Easter of 2020 will not be enlivened by egg hunts or gatherings of relatives. Instead of graduations and weddings, our spring will be marked by isolation and relentless bad news.
But it’s precisely in mourning and in lockdown that believers may experience the power of Easter’s surprise: the arrival of someone who meets us in seclusion and whispers, “peace be with you”.
René Breuel, pastor of an evangelical church in Rome.